Planning Magazine

3 Insights into the Future of Food Production

From gene editing to space tomatoes, here are some innovative approaches from the "2024 Trend Report for Planners."

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Gene-editing technologies are offering new methods of plant breeding to grow crops in more places around the globe. Photo by Shaiith/Shutterstock.

Climate change, economic issues, and social disruptors impact daily life in countless ways, on both large and small scales. The food industry isn't immune to these issues. In fact, some of its biggest challenges center on how to produce food sustainably and equitably — and doing so in an environmentally friendly manner that minimizes waste. Of the nearly four billion metric tons of food produced for consumption every year, almost a third is thrown away.

But there are some truly innovative solutions to food production concerns. The 2024 Trend Report for Planners, a publication of the American Planning Association (APA), features a deep dive on some inventive efforts to solve the food production problems of today and the future. Whatever happens, planners should be watching these developments — and understand when it's time to prepare for them and act.

New uses for technology

We live in a time where climate change is impacting many different aspects of our day-to-day lives — including how crops grow or evolve. It's becoming critical to not only understand the effects of climate change on our food production but also to create processes to proactively prepare for this new reality.

One such way is through studying how crops and their biomes have evolved over time and applying CRISPR, a technology that "selectively modifies DNA without introducing any foreign genes into the edited organism," according to the Trend Report. This DNA modification can course correct unwanted genetic characteristics faster than what would occur naturally over time, but it does not add or manipulate genes, so the resulting plants are not GMOs (genetically modified organisms). This technology also can assist in growing crops in new places, reduce the need for harmful chemicals, and create longer-lasting freshness for fruits and vegetables.

Location matters

Forget just farm to table — with urban dwellers consuming nearly 80 percent of all food being produced, it makes sense to have production closer to cities.

One way to do that is vertical farming, an indoor version of urban farming in which plants are stacked. It has the potential to grow more crops while shrinking the impact on the environment and energy resources. Scientists also are using robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) to supply pollination, sunlight, and water, and to deter pests.

Expected to be a $42.5 billion global market by 2032, the U.S. Department of Agriculture received about 300 applications for grant funding to implement urban farming projects in 2023. Empty office buildings — resulting from changes in work locations and habits following COVID-19 shutdowns — may provide the space needed for more vertical farming operations.

"As we reimagine the future of downtowns in the post-pandemic new normal, this can include more complete neighborhoods with mixed uses and a variety of amenities — including fresh food production," APA researchers wrote in the report.

Thinking outside of the box — and maybe even the planet

What if the next time you looked up at the night sky and pointed to a bright, twinkling dot above, it wasn't a star, planet, or moon but rather the food set to be on your plate soon? Maybe those efforts to grow food in The Martian aren't as far off as some might think, as scientists look at ways to grow crops in zero gravity to see if they can make it in outer space.

"In 2023, NASA grew its first tomatoes at the International Space Station, and researchers are looking into growing crops on Mars," according to the 2024 Trend Report for Planners. But they also are exploring the possibility of doing so in extremely cold areas, the desert, or the ocean. By trying to find ways to farm without traditional farmland, these pioneers are aiming to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and create new sustainable, mass-produced food solutions.

The American Planning Association's 2024 Trend Report for Planners — a report developed in partnership with the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy — features more than 100 existing, emerging, and potential future trends relevant to planning. The APA Foresight team researched and compiled this report as part of its ongoing effort to help planners navigate change, create more equitable and sustainable outcomes, and establish themselves as critical drivers to thriving communities. Learn more about APA Foresight.

Jonathan DePaolis is APA's senior editor.